James van Riemsdyk is making a strong case to earn a spot on Team USA’s Olympic roster with the way he’s begun his 2013-14 season.
An unfortunate injury to Joffrey Lupul early last season knocked Lupul off the top line with Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak. Lupul was replaced by van Riemsdyk, and although Lupul had shown good chemistry playing with Kessel, van Riemsdyk has shown an even better chemistry playing with his fellow American teammate.
The combination of van Riemsdyk and Kessel has given Toronto a dynamic duo on its top line. Both players are talented goal scorers, but perhaps the most impressive thing about the pair is their unselfish playmaking. Multiple two-on-one rushes for the Maple Leafs have resulted in Kessel passing to van Riemsdyk for an easy tip-in or vice versa. Look no further than Kessel’s hat-trick against the Anaheim Ducks, where van Riemsdyk recorded two assists by putting the puck on Kessel’s stick for a pair of easy tap-in goals.
The chemistry between van Riemsdyk and Kessel is undeniable and has been on full display with their start to the season. Kessel has 11 points through 10 games and is plus-three on the year, while van Riemsdyk has eight points in eight games and is plus-four after missing two contests with back spasms. It would make little sense for Team USA to have anybody else play left wing with Kessel at the Olympics given the chemistry between the two.
With all due respect to Bozak, Team USA will be able to put a much more talented center between the American wingers. For Maple Leaf fans begging the franchise to acquire a legitimate first-line center, the Olympics could be their chance at seeing what Toronto’s top wingers look like with an elite center. Ryan Kesler or Joe Pavelski would make the trio a speedy, aggressive, and defensively solid line. David Backes paired with van Riemsdyk would provide a physical duo, capable of grabbing the puck out of the corners which would free-up Kessel to sit in and wait in the slot.
Regardless of who Team USA puts between Toronto’s wingers, they’d be foolish to leave van Riemsdyk off their Olympic roster. The 6-foot-3 power forward has proven he can play both ends of the ice, being used often with the Maple Leafs as a penalty-killer. He’s shown he has soft hands around the net, capable of roofing the puck to the top corner or making a tape-to-tape pass to a teammate. He’s not afraid to stand in-front of the net or go into the corners to retrieve the puck. For a player his size, he’s also an exceptional skater which gives him a significant edge when Team USA chooses its roster given that the Olympics will be held on international-sized rinks.
If Team USA wants to take home the gold medal, they better take van Riemsdyk to Russia.